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Our Relationship With Knowledge
This article will argue that the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which is the foundation of science and our modern civilization is simplistic, outdated and increasingly dangerous.
Are we trying to manage the 21st century with a 19th century philosophy? Let’s take a look.
Our Evolving Relationship With Food
Let’s start with a quick analogy which can provide a glimpse of where we’re headed.
For most of our history humans have lived near the edge of starvation much of the time. In this scarcity context a “more is better” relationship with food was entirely reasonable.
We live in a new food era now. In our time food is plentiful and readily available in much of the world, and where that’s true more people die of obesity related diseases than die of starvation.
The point here is that a “more is better” relationship with food which was entirely rational for a very long time in an era of food scarcity became outdated and dangerous when transported to a different era characterized by a food explosion. We lucky moderns are required to replace the simplistic “more is better” food paradigm from the earlier era with a more intelligent and sophisticated relationship which can involve complicated cost/benefit calculations.
Our Evolving Relationship With Knowledge
This is where we are in our relationship with knowledge as well. The simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge which served us so well for so long now must adapt to meet the challenge of the new environment which it’s success has created.
The assumption that we should always seek as much knowledge as possible as fast as possible is a 19th century (and earlier) philosophy. This philosophy was entirely rational in the long era of knowledge scarcity, and it served us well in that context.
But times have changed. Today in the 21st century we no longer live in the old knowledge scarcity era. That’s over. We now live in a revolutionary new era characterized by knowledge exploding in every direction at an ever accelerating rate, a very different environment.
And so, because the exploding knowledge environment we live in today is very different than the past when knowledge was scarce and hard to come by, our relationship with knowledge needs to adapt to meet the challenges of this new era.
The Vast Scale Of Emerging Powers
The modern knowledge explosion obviously brings many benefits, way more than can be listed here, more than our ancestors could have even dreamed of. And although mistakes, missteps and even epic calamities do occur, so far we’ve always managed to clean up the mess, fix the error, learn the lessons, and continue with progress. So what’s the problem??
To understand the threat posed by operating from an outdated relationship with knowledge we need to examine the issue of scale. It is the vast scale of the powers emerging from the knowledge explosion that makes the longstanding progress => mistakes => more progress process that we are used to obsolete.
Erasing The Room For Error
Nuclear weapons provide a very easily understood example of how powers of vast scale change the threat landscape by erasing the room for error.
As you know, the nuclear stockpiles of the great powers will have to be managed successfully every single day forever, for as long as those weapons exist. The key thing to note here is that as far as the future of humanity goes, successfully managing such vast power most of the time is no longer sufficient. Doing a pretty good job no longer works. Making a mistake and then fixing it is no longer an option.
In the nuclear weapons era the room for error we’ve always counted on in the past is erased, and one bad day is all it takes to end the possibility for further progress. This is what defines the revolutionary new situation we now find ourselves in, a situation which demands perfection from us.
The Knowledge Explosion Assembly Line
If nuclear weapons were eliminated entirely, this would only buy us some time, because the knowledge development assembly line which created the nuclear threat will continue to create more vast powers with the potential for crashing civilization.
The 21st century is still young, and already we’re worrying that technologies like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering could pose a mortal threat to our civilization. And each of those powers further accelerates the pace of the knowledge explosion. We’re only getting started in this century, what’s yet to come over the next eighty years?
Each emerging power of existential scale will have to be successfully managed every single day forever because a single mistake with a single such power of vast scale a single time may be sufficient to crash the system and prevent the opportunity for renewal. This is what we can learn from the first existential scale technology, nuclear weapons.
More, Larger, Faster
A key fact of the knowledge explosion is that it feeds back upon itself creating an ever accelerating unfolding of new knowledge, and thus new powers. So not only will emerging powers be larger than what we could produce in the past, and not only will there be more such vast powers than currently, but they will arrive on the scene at an ever faster pace.
Ever more, ever larger powers, delivered at an ever faster pace. Each of these accelerating factors; scale, number, and speed; needs to be graphed against the glacial pace of human maturity development.
Are We Perfect?
There is nothing about thousands of years of human history which suggests that we are capable of the consistently perfect management which powers of vast scale require.
We’ve been able to survive repeated episodes of murderous insanity and other such mistakes in the past only because the powers available to us were limited. As example, we threw conventional explosives at each other with wild abandon in WWII, and were saved from total destruction only because conventional explosives simply aren’t powerful enough to crash civilization.
The Unexamined False Assumption
A simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge is built upon the false assumption that human beings will always be able to successfully manage any amount of power which emerges from the knowledge explosion. Simple common sense reveals this assumption to be a wishful thinking fantasy.
We sensibly limit the powers available to kids out of the realistic understanding that their ability to manage power is limited. But then we assume that when children turn 18 they somehow magically acquire the ability to successfully manage ANY amount of power that the knowledge explosion may deliver.
The irrationality of this assumption is proven beyond doubt by the thousands of hair trigger hydrogen bombs we adults have aimed down our own throats, a stark reality we rarely find interesting enough to comment upon.
Mature? Ready for even more power?
Should We Become Luddites?
Should we turn our backs on knowledge? We don’t have that option. We make our livings on this Earth by knowledge. Knowledge is to humans what wings are to a bird, and fins are to a fish.
To illustrate the path we are now required to walk in our relationship with knowledge, let’s return to the example of food. The solution to obesity is obviously not to stop eating. The solution to obesity is instead to develop a more sophisticated relationship with food, eating what our bodies need, while saying no to excessive consumption.
In the same way, a simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge which has served us so well for so long must now make way for a more sophisticated relationship involving complicated cost/benefit calculations. And just as is the case with food, this will sometimes involve saying no to some new knowledge.
Yes, you’re right, it’s true, saying no to any knowledge is typically considered heresy in the age of science. Such reactions are surely understandable, but they are also wishful thinking prisoners of the past.
Nuclear weapons prove that the simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge the modern world is built upon is outdated 19th century philosophy which requires updating to meet the existential threats presented by a revolutionary new era.